‘Between Them’ by Richard Ford
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One writes, Richard Ford claims, to counteract an “enduring truth of life: the world often doesn’t notice us”. A writer’s life is lived in the service of “noticing and being a witness”. One of the most acclaimed American novelists of his generation, Ford is best known for his Frank Bascombe series: The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land and Let Me Be Frank with You. The affable yet elegiac tone of Bascombe’s narration now resurfaces in Ford’s transition to memoir.
Between Them: Remembering My Parents is comprised of two separate essays. The first focuses on Ford’s father, Parker, and the second on his mother, Edna. Both parents came from the rural South, where there was little money and minimal education. Ford tells a story of them rising to higher stations than anticipated, but which, in retrospect, appear modest and underwhelming.
Parker started off as a grocery boy and became a travelling salesman for the Faultless Starch Company, servicing the southern states with Edna accompanying him. Things changed with the arrival of their only child. Parker then travelled alone, returning home on weekends, and Ford came to know his father as someone who was absent. He and his mother formed their own semi-closed unit, which carried on until his father’s sudden death in 1960, when Ford was 16. The essay on his mother addresses what occurred after his father’s death: Ford’s transition to adulthood, the intensity of the bond between a mother and an only child, and Edna’s death in 1981.
“To write a memoir”, Ford claims, “and to consider the importance of another human being is to try to credit what might otherwise go unremarked”. In pondering this, however, Ford is brought up against his own “incomplete understanding”. While Between Them was undertaken in order to “remedy my longing by imagining them near”, it is just as much a record of lapses and blanks. Ford adopts a speculative mode, with provisional portraits evoked by missing details: “And how was it for him? Driving, driving alone? Sitting in those hotel rooms, in lobbies, reading a strange newspaper in the poor lamplight … smoking?” Oftentimes, Ford develops the scene in the negative: “I don’t remember the time of year of his heart attack … I don’t remember it being cold or hot.”
As a consequence, what is most moving is less the story told than the nature of the inquiry: the long view taken by a son trying to imagine what his parents felt about their own lives, what these lives were like before him, and what they have become in memory.
Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is The Other Side of the World.